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Mozart Players make opera program an enjoyable night.

Byline: Concert review by Peter Bergquist For The Register-Guard

ON HIS RETURN to Eugene last weekend, Francis Graf- feo was greeted warmly and enthusiastically. Graffeo, the former artistic director of Eugene Opera, led the Oregon Mozart Players in a pair of concerts Friday and Saturday at Central Presbyterian Church.

With his background as an opera conductor, it is no surprise that Graffeo chose a program that focused on opera, including a generous serving of pieces for orchestra alone. He was joined by two outstanding singers, soprano Amy Hansen and tenor David Gustafson, for a varied and enjoyable selection of arias and ensembles.

The program opened with an orchestral piece, Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky's Suite No. 4, "Mozartiana." In this work, Tchaikovsky paid homage to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with arrangements of three piano pieces and the motet "Ave Verum Corpus."

Although Tchaikovsky's music usually is played by large orchestras, it was natural for the Mozart Players to play "Mozartiana." The warm resonance of the church added fullness to the musicians' sound, and the orchestra was in no way thin or insufficient.

Graffeo led a committed, well-played performance. Alyssa Park was outstanding in an extended violin solo that almost amounted to a concerto movement. Other notable solos were contributed by Kristin Halay on flute and Carol Robe on clarinet.

Hansen and Gustafson then appeared for the duet that closes Act 1 of Giacomo Puccini's `La Boheme.' They sang beautifully, effectively conveying the growing love between Mimi and Rudolfo.

They walked off stage at the end, as the opera's staging directs, and their fade-out on their last sustained note was exquisite, especially Hansen's high C, which Gus- tafson had the good taste not to compete with, singing instead the note Puccini wrote. It was infinitely more effective than the fortissimo one too often hears belted out.

The first half of the program closed with Hansen singing an aria from Gaetano Donizetti's `Linda di Chamounix.' She managed the spectacular coloratura of this music with complete security. Her tone was always warm and appealing, with nary a screech, and the rapid passage work was always clean and precise.

It would be a pleasure to hear Hansen again, and in fact, one can: next month in Portland Opera's production of Mozart's "Cosi fan Tutte" - although she won't have to hit the high E that she nailed so securely in the Donizetti.

The Mozart Players annually offer generous contributors the opportunity to conduct the orchestra themselves or to have a proxy to conduct for them. Saturday, the proxy conductor was Sandy Naishtat, a prominent local singer, who led the orchestra efficiently through the minuet from Mozart's G Minor Symphony.

Gustafson then returned for an aria from Pietro Mascagni's `Cavalleria Rusticana.' Turiddu is a heftier role than we have heard Gustafson sing before, but he is certainly up to it.

He began the serenade quietly from the wings, then came on stage and ended in heroic style. His voice has a ring to it that is not forced when loud nor squeezed when soft. It's no surprise that his career is burgeoning; good tenors are hard to find.

The orchestra also played the prelude to Turiddu's aria and followed it with the famous intermezzo. The strings contributed some especially refined playing to these pieces, and Graffeo led idiomatic, expressive performances.

The program returned to Mozart at the end, with several selections from "The Magic Flute." After the orchestra played the March of the Priests, we heard a large excerpt from Act II, in which Tamino and Pamina undergo a series of trials and eventually enter the temple of wisdom in triumph.

The roles of the two armed men in this scene were sung by Al Villanueva and Naishtat, returning in his more accustomed function as a singer. They joined effectively with Hansen and Gustafson in Mozart's music, at once solemn and joyful.

It was a pleasure to hear this scene, even out of context. The touching moment when Tamino is finally allowed to speak to Pamina was beautifully conveyed, and Hansen and Gustafson suggested the stage action nicely. The concert ended with a stirring performance of the opera's overture.

All in all, it was a most enjoyable program. Graffeo directed clearly and with authority, and the orchestra responded with fine playing all night. The candlelight setting and resonant church enhanced both the atmosphere and the sound. It was too dark to read the librettos included in the program books, but that may have been just as well, so that one could pay full attention to the fine music-making.

Peter Bergquist is a professor emeritus at the University of Oregon School of Music. He reviews classical music for The Register-Guard.
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Title Annotation:Review; Reviews
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jan 15, 2002
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